In 1988, while working at the site of Burrs Mill, I was approached by an elderly gentleman, polite and self-effacing, who offered me a letter which was addressed to himself. It was a notice of redundancy from his employers, the Star Bleaching Company, of Burrs Mill, dated 19th September 1933. Only years later, long after Jack Pike had died, did I come to realise the simple significance of his redundancy notice; in that it heralded the wholesale death of our industrial base over the decades which were to follow.
In 1931, in the midst of the ‘Great Depression’, when the Mandela-like Mahatma Gandhi visited the Lancashire mill town of Darwen, to see for himself the effect of India’s boycott on our cotton goods, he was to find that the poor but generous people bore him no malice. Instead, unemployed textile workers flocked in their thousands to see a man whose simple peasant persona, combined with his reputation as spiritual leader of millions of Indians, made him into a well-loved celebrity. The memory of his visit was to live on for decades within the consciousness of members of my own family who had worked in the textile industry.
Anyone who may have sought to blame Gandhi for
subsequent economic events had not seen the writing on the wall, for it was
just five years earlier, in 1926, that Britain had reached the high-water mark
of our cotton production, and our economy was now on a relentless downward
track. The Great Depression bit deeply
into the industrial infrastructure of the north-west, and any periods of ‘recovery’
from now on would only be spasmodic, and could not relieve the adverse trend.
Even so, by the 1960s, our industry still seemed
omnipotent. I can still remember a
school trip to see ring spinning at Peel Mills; and on quiet summer evenings, I
could hear the dull thump of the steam hammer at Webb’s Forge, all the way from
our house in Woodhill Street. This
activity was reassuring to a boy who was surrounded by adults who did a skilled
job of work with their hands.
But now, if you visit Manchester’s Exchange Theatre
you can still see, high on a wall in what was once the UKs biggest permanent
room space, the exact time and prices at which the Cotton Exchange finally
ceased to trade – 31 December 1968. Without really knowing it, we were rapidly
And in about 1972, my brother and myself were walking
to school across Elton’s King George V playing fields when we encountered a
milling mass of Walmsley’s men who were out on strike. A sharp wit in their midst provoked raucous
laughter from his peers by shouting out to us “Hey lads – don’t become
engineers like us – become footballers instead!”. And predictably, both of us found our way into
heavy industry as engineers, only to be made redundant just a few years later…
I know that there are still many people in Bury who
made livelihoods from household names, such as Walmsley’s, Holgate Fishwick
& Leather, Bobby Hall’s, the East Lancs Paper Mill, Transparent Paper, and Olives,
to name just a few, but who will now look back with lots of nostalgia (and not
a little puzzlement), and ask themselves ‘Where did it all go to?’
And if anyone were now to build a new cotton or paper
mill in Bury, I have no doubt that they could still find enough (now admittedly
ageing) people in this town who would be able to run and manage it very
effectively. There are still skilled
people in our home town who could operate a Jacquard Loom or a Fourdrinier or a
forging hammer with their eyes shut. These
individuals contain a huge amount of technical and inherent knowledge within themselves,
and yet they will never again be called upon to put any of this to practical
So who then was to blame for these losses? Intransigent unions, or malignant management, or
grasping shareholders, or disinterested governments, or just market conditions?
It was probably a combination of some or
all of these factors. In reality, by
about 1870, American and German industry was already beginning to challenge our
self-perceived superiority. Barely a
century after our industrial ascent started, our ending had already been ordained.
It is now almost 90 years since Burrs Mill closed for
good, and now, long ago stripped of our vast manufacturing power, we are about
to enter a brave new world, which will see us finding our own way in unpredictable
markets where concrete certainties about ourselves and our skills are quickly
Some of the older Bury
residents who know Burrs will recall collecting spent rifle bullets from the
‘targets’ to the north of the ‘Brown Cow’, at the foot of the Castle Steads bluff.
But how did the ‘targets’ originate, and
who was using them?
threat of armed rebellion within the industrial heartlands of South Lancashire
had been present ever since the Peterloo massacre in 1819. In 1826 a machine-breaking mob advanced on
Bury, and were only stopped by the Yeomanry after they had smashed fifty new
power looms at Hutchinson’s Woodhill Mill on Brandlesholme Road (later ‘Boot
& Shoe Works’).
the rise of Chartism in Lancashire in the late 1830s frightened the government
so badly that they authorised the construction of permanent military barracks
at Preston, Ashton-under-Lyne, and at Bury; where the Wellington Barracks was
constructed for the 20th Regiment of Foot on Bolton Road, just beyond the western
edge of the town. Although the enlisted
men were recruited locally, the officers were invariably from far-distant
places, which avoided the risk of units sympathising with any rioting
by the mid. 19th century, new threats to British hegemony abroad were met by
the formation of new ‘Militia’ units, which contained part-time volunteers with
regular army instructors. The 7th
Regiment of the Royal Lancashire Militia, formed in 1853 in the lead up to the
Crimean War, were based at the Militia Barracks on Bolton Road, which was opened
in 1859, very near to the older and larger Wellington Barracks.
according to the 1871 census return, four members of the Royal Lancashire
Militia had taken up residence in the village at Calrows. Three of these were ‘Staff Sergeants’, all of
whom had families with them, whilst the fourth, and most senior, was Irishman
Gershom Herrick, Adjutant, who with his wife Fanny, lived in the mansion ‘Woodlands’,
recently vacated by the Calrow family. And
one Robert W. Jackson, also from Ireland, Surgeon in the 100th Regiment of
Foot, occupied No.7 Derby Cottage, Calrows, with his family.
1881, when the 20th Foot became the Lancashire Fusiliers, the 7th Regiment
Militia was absorbed into the LFs, as the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, and the
Militia Barracks now became redundant after barely 20 years’ use. Meanwhile, the Wellington Barracks was
expanded westwards beyond the protective limits of its original curtain wall,
probably to cope with the increase in manpower.
in the 1920s, the targets at Burrs were then in regular use by the Bury Rifle
Club, it seems most likely that these two massive masonry and clay structures
were built decades before then, for musketry practice by the Royal Lancashire Militia. Now difficult to find and partially bulldozed
away, these shooting butts are one of our last links to a time when the
military were a common presence within northern towns, and when civil
insurrection was still considered as a potent threat to the established order.
(1) The late Major John Hallam (1937-2003), of Wellington Barracks, kindly assisted me with research into this topic.
(2) Before 1890, another rifle range existed at Lowercroft, utilising the dams of the middle and upper reservoirs as shooting butts. I can only assume that this was in use by the 20th Foot from Wellington Barracks and by the Militia too.
In the decades after 1770,
when St John’s Chapel-of-Ease was constructed, it quickly became a place of
rendezvous for the new industrial entrepreneurs. Perhaps feeling excluded by
the older landed gentry, who attended St Mary’s parish church, the textile magnates,
led by the elder Robert Peel and his partner William Yates, made this church
And no doubt after Sunday
services, they would gather in St John’s churchyard in small cliques, to
discuss the textile trade, and to spread gossip about their rivals. And for some years, by cruel episodes, a
heart-breaking tragedy was played out right before their eyes, and compounded
for the suffering family by the arcane and patriarchal laws of business.
When Richard Calrow first
came to Higher Woodhill in about 1790 to set up his mill, he had technical
know-how from working as a manager in cotton mills, but he lacked the
money. He got around this problem by
finding a business partner, Henry Topping. Topping was from Upholland, in Lancashire, and
had married his wealthy cousin, Margaret Leigh in 1781. It seems likely that her dowry provided the
capital for the new enterprise at Higher Woodhill.
Both Calrow and Topping
had two sons each, and it must have seemed that that these four young men could
inherit the partnership, and work together to expand the fledgling textile
business. In 1800 Henry Topping died,
leaving the vast sum of £30,000 to his wife and children. But a double tragedy then ensued, as Henry’s
adult sons, William and Richard, followed him to the family grave at St. John’s
in 1805 and 1807 respectively. Neither of these two had any children, and the
male line of the Topping family had now become extinct.
According to the
conditions of the original business partnership, from which the females were
excluded, in 1807 the partnership was thereby dissolved, and Richard Calrow now
took sole control. In the following
year, he bought Burrs Mill from Peel, Yates & Co, and just a few years
later, he handed the entire business over to his own sons, William and Thomas.
And for the remaining decade
of her life, with only her surviving daughter for companionship, Margaret
Topping lived on at Higher Woodhill, and witnessed how the Calrow family
business was thriving; and how her own family, who had financed all of this,
were now legally excluded, adding irony to heartbreak.
And if you visit the small memorial garden at The Rock now, you can still see, cut in letters of stone, the cold and hard evidence for this long-forgotten tragedy.
Following the incarceration of Bury’s
Rector, Sir William Henry Clerke, in the Fleet Prison, William Yates moved into
Clerke’s former home, Springside, to live out his remaining days, in mourning
for his daughter Ellen, the mother of the future Prime Minister. His business
partner and son-in-law, the elder Sir Robert Peel, had by then moved to Drayton
Manor, to live the life of a landed gentleman.
Yates outlived his daughter by ten
years, dying in 1813, aged 74; and in the previous year, he had commissioned
the Bolton surveyor John Albinson to make a plan of his land and buildings at
Springside. This plan has survived, and shows the site in some detail. To the
north of the house was a courtyard, which included a stable block and coach
house. A further north again was a walled garden, with a glasshouse across the
north end. To the south of the house were a pair of ornamental ponds, formed by
damming the stream here, one of these still survives.
In 1806, the Grant brothers had bought
the old Peel printworks at Ramsbottom, this was followed by Nuttall Mill in
1812, then Springside in 1818. William and Daniel had previously resided in
Manchester town houses, but now both moved to live at Springside, living together
like an old married couple (the Barclay brothers of Sark, proprietors of The Telegraph newspaper, spring to
Much has been written about the Grant
brothers, but it is difficult to see beyond the blatant hagiography presented
by both Charles Dickens and William Hulme Elliot; it is as if a convenient
smokescreen had been drawn across the means by which they generated their vast
William died at Springside in 1842,
and by the time Daniel followed him, in 1855, the East Lancs Railway had driven
their new line up the valley, and by erecting an embankment to the west of the
house, very effectively ruined the rural tranquillity which had originally made
the location so desirable.
Next in residence at Springside was
the highly ambitious Richard Olive. Before 1851, Richard’s father John had set
up a railway wagon building business at Woolfold, and before 1850 John had
established the adjacent Woolfold Paper Mills, on the Kirklees Brook. This was
subsequently run by John’s younger sons, William and Thomas (later known as
Olive’s Paper Mill, demolished in 2007).
After John Olive died in 1867, Richard
took over the Woolfold wagon works, where he employed my own great-grandfather,
Franklin, then 14 years old, as a labourer. Not to be outdone by his brothers,
Richard acquired a lease to Burrs Mill in about 1880, and converted this to
paper manufacture. He added a three-storey warehouse, and the existing 40-yard
octagonal brick chimneystack.
As if that wasn’t enough, Richard also
constructed a new wagon-building works at Springside, on a narrow slip of land
between the East Lancs Railway and the river Irwell. A branch line was
constructed through the works, and a large new reservoir to the east probably
provided steam-engine condenser water. By 1881, Richard was employing 500 men
and boys, at his three businesses.
Richard was one of four main promoters
behind construction of the Tottington Branch Line, constructed wholly by hand
between 1878 and 1882; this was linked to the Woolfold Works by a spur line
which passed beneath Tottington Road, but the works may never have benefitted
from this link to the railway system, as it closed down in about 1881, possibly
as a consequence of the ‘Great Depression’ of 1873-96. The paper-making
business at Burrs was also closed before 1884.
However, the Springside Wagon Works
continued to run; and to house some of his workers, Richard erected a row of 18
terraced houses above the Irwell valley to the west, named ‘Springside View’.
He also constructed a new footbridge (‘Olive Bridge’) on the site of the old
Goose Ford, to enable his workers to cross the Irwell to get to work.
Richard Olive died in 1917, and Springside was demolished before 1920. But the cellars survived intact, and for some years now, a new country house has been under construction here, which will be the third house to be erected on this site. But the bridge and the ford have long disappeared, and no evidence survives to indicate this historic river crossing.
In 1749, diarist Dr Richard Kay suffered a nasty accident in the Irwell just north of Burrs. In his own words:
“… in crossing the River at Gooseford which is
much swelled by the late Rains my Horse stumbled in the deep Stream and tho’ he
was mostly covered with Water yet Blesed be God I got out safe; I drawed my
Boots at the next House and exchanged my wet Stockings for a Pair of dry Ones
that I borrowed”.
If you walk for less than ten
minutes upstream from Burrs Weir, you come to Springside, where the river gorge
abruptly widens out. Just down to your left, and no longer obvious, was the ‘Goose
Ford’, where Dr Kay almost came to grief. It was so named because in times past
flocks of geese, with clipped wings and fitted with leather shoes, had been marched
through here to market, honking noisily in protest.
As you turn right to pass beneath
the railway bridge here, you will see a large barn-like structure just ahead. This was the site of Gooseford Farmhouse, one
of the homes of the Kay family, and then later of Springside House, which was home
to a number of prominent local industrialists.
In 1802, Sir William Henry
Clerke (1751-1818), Eighth Baronet, and Rector of Bury, looked out northwards
from his Rectory, down towards Bury Ground and Chamber Hall, then the home of Sir
Robert Peel, and he was filled with envy. He then penned a letter to his aristocratic
patron at Knowsley, Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby, in which he lambasted those
rich manufacturers ‘whose weight in this
County seems to tread fast on the Heels of your Lordships Ancestors’. His words were ironic: the events which followed
could have come straight from the pages of the Bible itself, and led to the
utter undoing of Sir William Clerke and his family.
He had obtained his
living at Bury from Stanley in 1778 as a result of a deathbed plea by his older
brother, Lieutenant James Clerke, 7th Baronet, who had died of wounds at the
battle of Saratoga, in the War of American Independence. In the years which
followed his appointment, William was well placed to witness how quickly entrepreneurs,
such as Peel & Yates, applied themselves to the textile business, and went
on to make great fortunes. Catching the ‘spirit of the age’, and despite his
status as a minor aristocrat, he set himself up to trade locally in meal and
flour, and acquired limekilns at Clitheroe, but he clearly lacked the necessary
Meanwhile, he bought the freehold of the old Gooseford Farmhouse, which he then demolished, and erecting a grand new country house on the site, known as ‘Springside’. The setting could not have been bettered. As a large natural amphitheatre, it was floored by broad water meadows, on the far side of which curved the Irwell, below an attractively wooded hillside, and a trackway passed the house to cross the river at Goose Ford, via which one could travel to Brandlesholme or Tottington.
But in an age which gave
birth to an astonishing number of attractive country houses, with classical features
derived from the villas of 16th century northern Italy, William Clerke’s new
house at Springside looked more like a County Asylum! It is tempting to believe that Clerke’s own hand
lay heavily upon his architect’s blueprints.
Initially, Clerke’s corn
dealing business seems to have been successful, but he was probably too
trusting of human nature, and whilst his own employees defrauded him, he then
extended credit to his customers, who failed to repay him. Eventually, as his business collapsed and his
capital was exhausted, his creditors had him committed as a ‘bankrupt’ to the Fleet
Prison for Debtors in London, which had an appalling reputation.
Meanwhile, Clerke was to find that Robert Peel and William Yates were ‘treading upon his own heels’, as they now acquired (at a knock-down price, no doubt) both the Rectory and Springside House. And Peel went a step further: in 1803, he had lost his first wife Ellen, and just two years later, he remarried. His new wife was none other than Clerke’s sister, Susannah, and her own family seem to have believed that this marriage might have resulted in Peel paying off the Rector’s debts, so that he could be released from the Fleet Prison.
However, Peel’s daughter
from his first marriage did not get on with her new stepmother, Susannah, Lady
Peel; and this resulted in a vexatious separation, with the older woman leaving
the Peel household, impoverished, to live with friends elsewhere. Meanwhile, all but forgotten, Sir William
Henry Clerke languished at the Fleet, still nominally the Rector of Bury, until
1818, when he died there, his debts remaining unpaid.
(NOTE: The late 18th century development of Bury’s Glebe fields resulted in three streets being named after the unfortunate Rector – William Street, Henry Street, and Clerke Street. Only the easternmost part of the latter street has survived, following the clearance of the Union Square area in the late 1960s).
In 1796, an advert appeared in the Manchester Chronicle, containing within a single sentence both a tempting offer, and a palpable threat:
“RUNAWAY. Two hired servants from Messrs Calrows Cotton Mill, near Bury, on Wednesday the sixth of June. Thomas Warburton, aged 19. Had on when he went off a blue jacket and striped trowsers: is short made, has brown short hair, and wants a joint of the little finger on the right hand. William Kelly, 12 years of age. Had on when he went off a blue jacket and linen trowsers, is short made, and has brown hair. Whoever will give intelligence of the above lads, so that they can be found, shall be handsomely rewarded; and anyone employing them after this public notice will be prosecuted as the law directs.
Higher Widdle, near Bury, Aug. 1”
The context of this ‘manhunt’ becomes clear to anyone availing themselves of John Waller’s excellent book, ‘The real Oliver Twist: Robert Blincoe: A life that illuminates an age’. Waller’s contention was that Charles Dickens based his character ‘Oliver Twist’ upon Robert Blincoe, a seven-year old orphan who was taken from the workhouse at St Pancras, to work at Litton Mill in Derbyshire, in 1799.
In later life, Blincoe was to relate his narrative to the prolific Bolton journalist and author John Brown, who published this to a horrified public. Blincoe’s ill treatment at Litton Mill had been nothing short of barbaric, and it was only now that the middle classes became aware of the fate of any child unlucky enough to be passed from the parish overseers to northern millowners.
Such a child was legally bound, or ‘indentured’, to his or her employer, until the age of 21. The youngest such children were just seven! For just bed and board, they were required to work for up to 15 hours per day, six days per week. And just like Warburton and Kelly, you too would be ‘short made’ if you were fed watery gruel every day, and you too would lose fingers (or even limbs) if you were worked continually in an exhausted state in very close proximity to unguarded mill machinery.
But why were children brought all the way from Staffordshire or Birmingham or even London? Lancashire’s old landed gentry were not impressed by the activities of the newly jumped-up industrialists. As the gentry controlled the magistracy, the abuse of local children might be less easy to conceal, and would facilitate attacks on men such as Robert Peel, as indeed happened when Dr Thomas Percival launched his tirade against conditions at Peel’s Radcliffe Mill in 1784.
But no-one would make any fuss about orphans brought from far-away places such as Birmingham or even London, and captured absconders were frequently sent to prison for several months, before being returned to the millowner whose conduct had caused them to run away in thefirst place.
Between the 1790s and the 1830s, many tens of thousands of such child apprentices were brutally worked to exhaustion (and sometimes to death) in textile mills across the north of England. The older Robert Peel, when as an MP introduced his ‘Health & Morals of Apprentices Act’, claimed that he had used 1,000 such pauper children within his Bury mills, but that he had had no control over how his overseers had mistreated them.
Historian John Ainsworth related how a new batch of apprentices had arrived at Burrs Mill, and mistakenly used tough oat-cakes to light a fire, disbelieving that this ‘bread’ might in fact represent part of their diet from then onwards.
More reliable evidence for the existence of an apprentice house at Burrs has come to light. In about 1801, poor law records state that fifteen year old Elizabeth Powell, from Staffordshire, worked for Sir Robert Peel “in Elton [probably Bury Ground], and slept in the apprentice house in Walmersly (sic) until she was 21” (Aspin, 207).
And in 1796, two Birmingham Poor Law Guardians visited Peel’s Hinds Mill, in Elton, to investigate reports of physical abuse of their former charges (Aspin, 203). Such a journey would not have been made unless the Guardians had good cause to visit Hinds, and there is no reason to believe that apprentices employed at Burrs were treated any better, as hinted at by Ainsworth.
By 1800, Robert Peel senior was the seventh wealthiest individual in Britain, with a fortune of £2 million, much of that generated by the free labour of indentured children. He had outstripped most of the old aristocracy, including his own landlord, the Earl of Derby. From the printing works at Bury Ground alone, Peel was taking £70,000 per year, and probably as much again from all of the other mills and printworks.
We are shocked today to hear of the scale of abuses perpetrated against vulnerable children in our northern towns; but the scale of what happened to children across the north during the first decades of the 19th century would have made today’s abuses seem insignificant by comparison.
Then as now, wherever vulnerable adolescents were to be found, there too would have been found opportunistic abusers. And although cases of sexual abuse within the apprentice system have been only rarely recorded, they were much more easily concealed, and may well have been widespread.
The immediate fate of the boys Warburton and Kelly is nowhere recorded, but it is not likely to have had a happy ending, especially if they were returned to the ‘care’ of Calrow’s overseers at Higher Woodhill. We take a walk through Burrs Country Park for pleasure now, but it is difficult to conceive just how these ‘slave children’ might have viewed this same location just two centuries ago.
‘The Real Oliver Twist’, John Waller, 2005, Icon Books Ltd
‘The Water Spinners: A new look at the early cotton trade’, Chris Aspin, 2003, Helmshore Local History Society
The development of Burrs Country Park could not have been progressed without rebuilding the old Burrs Bridge. Until about 1880, the only way to cross the river here was by the ford, or for pedestrians, over the feeder canal aquaduct. During floods, the only alternative for horse and cart, shifting raw cotton, finished yarn, and coal, was a long and awkward route via the Plumpton Brook and Walmersley Road, to the canal terminal at Bury Bridge.
By 1987, the old bridge, with two brick and stone piers, and carried upon wrought-iron beams, was in a poor state, with a 2 tonne weight limit. Bury MBC committed to a £240,000 rebuild, by Harbour & General Works Ltd (now VolkerStevin of Preston), which started in September of that year. The first task was a site investigation, to determine the foundation design. A drilling rig erected by the old bridge almost came to grief when flood waters forced it away from its anchors.
Meanwhile, before the old bridge was demolished, an alternative access across the river had to be provided. At this point, and at practically no cost to Bury MBC, the Territorial Army’s 127 Field Company (REME), based at Clifton, in Salford, stepped forward. Astonishingly, over a single weekend, these dedicated and highly capable men constructed a military ‘Bailey Bridge’ across the Irwell, just to the east of the existing bridge.
On Simons Field, to the south of the river, they assembled a long steel deck and high parapets, of which the ‘leading edge’ comprised lightweight elements which curved upwards at the river end. The whole structure was carried upon rollers, and was simply pushed forward across the river by a large bulldozer, being dependent upon the cantilever effect to ensure that the whole structure didn’t tilt into the river.
Once the lightweight north end had ‘landed’ on the north bank, this part was progressively dismantled, to be replaced by the ‘full spec’ bridge structure as the bulldozer pushed it forward in incremental sections. There was nothing flimsy about this temporary bridge – it was designed to take 38 tonne vehicles, and was only dismantled, by a reverse procedure, once the new bridge was completed.
Demolition of the old bridge was then fairly straightforward. A large excavator sat upon the masonry of the old ford, and simply pushed up and displaced the old iron beams, then used a hydraulic breaker to reduce to riverbed level the two masonry piers and the end abutments.
What then followed was the digging of a pair of huge holes down to bedrock on the north and south riverbanks, followed by concrete being poured within timber formworks to create the new bridge abutments. A massive crane was then brought in, and in the words of the site engineer, this lifted and located the four 30 metre steel beams ‘as if they were just pencils’.
And the concrete deck and parapets were then added, and then in September 1988, a small group gathered to witness a ribbon being cut by the retiring Chief Executive, Jim McDonald, and the bridge being officially opened to road traffic. This was to represent the fifth bridge crossing the river at Burrs, and a sixth was to follow when the new ‘pipe bridge’ was erected just downstream, several years later.
“Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” Words attributed to Sir Launcelot Kiggell, Chief of Staff to Sir Douglas Haig, when he broke down in tears after first seeing the morass across which the Battle of Third Ypres had been fought.
207 Machine Gun Company
In the aftermath of the Battle of Third Ypres, the exhausted commanding officer of 207 Machine Gun Company sat down amid mud, shell craters, and corpses, and penned a short letter on gridded paper, used normally for artillery projection. He wrote to a Lancashire housewife, asking after the health of her husband, Lance Corporal Richard Fletcher, who, until very recently, had been serving within his unit. This man had been wounded during a ferocious artillery bombardment, and had been evacuated from the battlefield.
Richard was born in Bury in 1886, but was raised in the Salford industrial slums immortalised in the Robert Roberts classic autobiography A Ragged Schooling. As a young man, he had travelled to the USA to find employment working in Buffalo, New York state, on railway steam locomotives.
In 1908, he had married Lucy Warburton, who had been orphaned as a child when her parents, both travelling actors, died in County Durham of a ‘plague’. She had been taken in by a quarry manager living in Turton, Lancashire, and was raised as a member of his family.
By 1914, Richard and Lucy were living and working in the Lancashire cotton mill town of Darwen. In 1915, Richard volunteered to join the 1st (Regular) Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and was allocated to the Machine Gun section. He then took part in the Battle of Loos, and in the disastrous attack against the Hohenzollern Redoubt, which claimed 3,643 British casualties in the first few minutes.
During the winter of 1915-16, the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) came into being. At Brigade level, all of the trained gunners and machine guns were brought together, to form a single MG Company, equipped with sixteen Vickers Mk.1 guns. Each gun required a team of six men. The team leader was normally a Lance Corporal, who fired the gun, assisted by the No.2, who fed the canvas ammunition belts. No.3 acted as range taker, using a complex optical device. No.4 was the signaller, maintaining contact with Brigade HQ. Nos. 5 and 6 acted as ammunition carriers. The 16 guns thus required 96 men, whilst an additional 24 men formed a transport section, using horse-drawn limbers to carry the guns, spare parts and ammunition when the Company moved up to the line and back.
The primary function of an MGC Company was to provide a short-range artillery battery, which would operate from behind the lines, and would bring down a hail of bullet rounds upon designated targets, using the water-cooled Vickers machine gun, which operated at 450 rounds per minute, using indirect plunging fire at targets up to 4,500 yards (4.1km) away. These batteries were used against road junctions, trench systems, and troop forming-up points, with devastating effect.
Richard was initially attached to No.2 MGC, but following a wound, he was then transferred to 207 MGC. From the start, 207 MGC was commanded by Captain Morris Gelsthorpe, a graduate of Durham University, whose older brother Bernard was reported as missing in action in September 1916, and never came home.
The killing fields of Third Ypres
The Battle of Third Ypres comprised ten separate engagements between July 31 and November 10, 1917, all of which were intended to expand the Salient to encompass the high ground east of Ypres, from which German observation enabled devastating shellfire to make the Salient so dangerous to Allied forces. By the signing of the Armistice, it is believed that at least 200,000 men of the Commonwealth forces had died here.
From the Menin Gate, the Menin Road runs straight and level across the Salient, before visibly rising at Hooge. Between this point and the village of Gheluvelt, the corridor of the Menin Road must contend as one of the most fought-over plots in the history of warfare. It was here, in 1918, near the sinister German strongpoint known as ‘Tower Hamlets’, that war artist Paul Nash painted his iconic battlefield image The Menin Road, which now hangs in the Imperial War Museum. It was across this corridor that the Battle of Polygon Wood was fought, as the fifth engagement of Third Ypres, and it was in this vicinity that the men of 207 MGC briefly held the line against a massed German infantry and artillery assault.
General Plumer’s Second Army were to follow the Battle of Menin Road with an advance to take Polygon Wood, scheduled for 26 September 1917. The 1st Anzac Corps were to advance through the Wood, supported on the right by the 33rd Division, which was to take the valley of the Reutelbeek stream, and Polderhoek Chateau. To the south of the Menin Road, the 39th Division were to move against the ‘Tower Hamlets’ defensive bastion. Three Machine Gun Companies were to supply a barrage capacity from behind the front line, these were 207 MGC, 248 MGC, and 19 MGC.
By 1am on the morning of 25th September, Captain Gelsthorpe had stationed 207 MGC about 150 yards behind the front lines of the 33rd Division, the machine guns being spaced 30 yards apart. But at 3.30am, the German artillery commenced a ferocious bombardment on the 33rd Divisional front, and SOS flares appeared along the line, requesting artillery support. 207 and 19 MGCs responded immediately with a barrage on a trajectory against the enemy front line.
At dawn, the German barrage ceased, and a massed infantry attack of no less than five divisions commenced upon the 33rd Divisional front, which was badly mauled and pushed back, suffering thousands of casualties, many being burnt by Flammenwerfer. As the German infantry cut through the British front lines and advanced towards them, Gelsthorpe’s men levelled their machine guns and took aim over open sights.
The records of the MGC during Third Ypres recount what happened next: “The 207th Company…opened fire with sixteen guns at almost point-blank range into the massed hordes of the enemy. The enemy was concentrated behind Polderhoek Chateau Ridge, and as soon as their bodies were seen down to the knee topping the lines, Captain Gelsthorpe’s batteries opened a murderous fire into their ranks. Low flying enemy aeroplanes soon, however, detected him and both by machine gunning and directing artillery upon the 207th MGC, the enemy inflicted very severe casualties amongst the gunners”.
L/Cpl Richard Fletcher’s own testimony of his last hours on the Western Front relates the fate of the brave men of 207 MGC. A shell or mortar round landed in his own gun position, killing his entire team and destroying the gun, but miraculously leaving him with only an arm wound. As the ground heaved from the constant impact of artillery shells he ran, stopping only to help a fellow gunner with a leg wound. More than half of 207 MGC were now dead or wounded, and the latter, if they were able to, made their way to the nearest dressing station, probably at Clapham Junction on the Menin Road.
The MGC records continue: “Captain Gelsthorpe realized that his position was untenable and withdrew his guns, excepting four which had been totally destroyed, in perfect order to a new position east of Stirling Castle, dug in, re-laid his lines and personally reported what he had done. During the whole period Captain Gelsthorpe and his two remaining officers, one of whom was wounded, and his whole Company, such as were left of them, displayed the most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty and inflicted enormous losses on the enemy…”
Despite all of this, by 27 September, the Germans had been thrown back, and Captain Gelsthorpe returned to bury the dead of 207 MGC. They were probably given shallow graves with wooden crosses; but it is likely that this burial place was churned over by artillery in subsequent actions, as well as being reoccupied by the German advance in 1918.
The survivors of 207 MGC, now somewhat less than 50 in number, fought on in the remaining engagements of Third Ypres, but before Polygon Wood was taken, L/Cpl Richard Fletcher would have joined the thousands of wounded taking the Menin Road through the Salient, to pass through the shattered ghost town of Ypres, to gain safety.
By train, he was then taken to No.18 General Hospital at Le Treport, on the French coast near Dieppe. He was admitted with a gun-shot wound to his left hand with fracture of the 3rd metacarpal. He was operated on, and a piece of shrapnel removed, before he was invalided to the UK on 4 October 1917. He returned to civilian life; but was not formally discharged from the ranks of 207 MGC until 27 March 1919.
Wounds seen and unseen
Very few serving men on the Western Front could have avoided being hit by bursts of red hot shrapnel, whether by artillery barrage, or by trench mortar. Ernst Junger, in his powerful memoir Storm of Steel, relates how he was wounded no less than twenty times during his service in the German infantry.
Whatever his physical condition upon his discharge, L/Cpl Richard Fletcher probably came to consider himself a lucky man, especially when he was later made aware that from the First Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, a total of 1,800 Bury men had fallen to Turkish guns in the Dardanelles.
But the psychological effects of trench warfare may have been much more serious. Richard Fletcher was haunted for the remainder of his days by what he had seen and done in the Ypres Salient. It is one thing to fire on a barrage trajectory towards a pre-registered co-ordinate which is out of sight; it is quite something else to discharge a Vickers machine gun, at ten rounds per second, into the flesh of living men whose faces you can see, as he had done during the Battle of Polygon Wood.
Only the well-heeled could afford the new ‘talking therapies’ offered at Craiglockhart or Seale Hayne; and only the well-connected could indulge themselves by casting their medals into the Mersey in protest against the Establishment. But for the average ‘Tommy’ it was just a case of stoical silence, survival, and keeping one step away from the ‘means test’ and destitution. In the decades which followed 1918, any dysfunctional behaviour by Western Front veterans was addressed by their neighbours with the simple exculpatory phrase: ‘Oh – he was in the Great War’.
Aftermath and Remembrance
In 1921, with three young children to provide for, Richard Fletcher took his bicycle across the West Pennine Moors from Darwen to Bury, having been made aware of a possible job as a ‘firebeater’ at the Star Bleach Mill, at Burrs, near Bury. Despite his disability, he managed to get the job, and he then brought his young family by horse and cart, to a rented house at Calrows village.
In part the work was dirty and dangerous, especially for a man working alone with only one good hand. One of his duties was to climb through a manhole into the cast-iron economiser chamber, to remove accumulated soot when the boilers had cooled at weekend. This required swathing oneself in fireproof grey bandages, mummy-like, to avoid burns. It was normally a job undertaken by two men, as the risk of being overwhelmed by pockets of lethal carbon monoxide was ever present. But the men who had witnessed the barbaric horrors of the Western Front were not likely to complain about harsh working conditions; they were just grateful to have found their way home again.
In 1953, Captain Morris Gelsthorpe returned from his chosen work as a missionary in the Sudan, and was appointed as Assistant Bishop to Nottingham and Southwell. Every year from then onwards, he hosted a reunion of the surviving men of 207 MGC. But L/Cpl Richard Fletcher was not among them. For in 1947 he had died of a stroke in the deserted bleachworks of Rothwell’s Croft, at Lower Woodhill, Bury, where he had worked as caretaker after leaving Burrs Mill in 1940.
On Remembrance Day, 11 November 2017, exactly 100 years to the day after Captain Gelsthorpe had written his letter to Lucy Fletcher, with countless others we stood beneath the Euville stone vault of the Menin Gate, to witness the haunting strains of the ‘Last Post’, followed by a lone piper playing the ‘Lament to the Fallen’.
Appendix 207 Machine Gun Company B.E.F. 11-11-17
Dear Mrs Fletcher, I am rather anxious to know how your husband Cpl Fletcher R who was in this company is progressing. The last we knew of him was that he was wounded, not severely, but after passing through the Dressing Station further information with regard to his progress is never sent to us but to you, his next of kin. When you next write to him please let him know how grateful I am for all his good work in this company. I am very sorry indeed to be losing him as he set such an excellent example to everyone of bravery and courage under shell-fire. At the same time I am very glad for your sake that the wound was not worse and that you still have such an excellent husband. The men of his section miss him very much especially as his section officer was killed of wounds. They were all the very best of men whom no-one can replace. Wishing you and your husband the very best of luck and hoping soon to hear news of him. I am Yours sincerely A. M. Gelsthorpe Capt. O.C. 207 Machine Gun Company
In the field
Mr Graham Sacker, Historical Research, MGC Database, for his kind research on Richard Fletcher’s army service in WW1.
Cave N 2015 Battleground Europe: Polygon Wood, Pen & Sword Books
Dendooven D 2001 Ypres as Holy Ground: Menin Gate & Last Post, de Klaproos
Gelsthorpe E 1973 A Corn of Wheat
Holt T & Holt V 2003 Battlefield Guide: Ypres Salient, Pen & Sword Books
Junger E 2003 Storm of Steel, Allen Lane
Lloyd N 2017 Passchendaele: A New History, Penguin Books
Moorhouse G 1992 Hell’s Foundations: A Town, its Myths and Gallipoli, Hodder & Staughton
Sassoon S 1930 Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Faber and Faber
Over thirty years ago, on a warm day in August 1987, a small group of young people carrying axes and saws made their way along Woodhill Road, crossed old Burrs Bridge, and began to cut and hack their way back into the dense canopy of self-seeded woodland which had obscured the remains of Burrs Mill for over three decades. Inauspiciously, and without ceremony, and certainly with no concept of the final scale and massive cost of the reclamation project, which on that day they were pathfinding…
In the early 1980s, concerned at the scale of job losses as the UKs old industrial base was disappearing, and shaken by the resistance which the miners had brought against them, the Thatcher government developed ways in which to ‘massage’ the rising unemployment figures. One of these was the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) scheme. The basic premise was that an employer could engage a number of unemployed people; they would work for three days a week, for £20 per day. It doesn’t sound like much now, but for some it would have been the first wage they had.
And for some, it may have been the first structure in their lives after leaving school. Anyone not present at Bury Interchange at 8AM to catch the van would be left to walk to Burrs. It certainly got them out of bed. And many made good friends, and learned skills which they would otherwise have remained ignorant of. And all worked hard, and demonstrated to observers that unemployed did not mean unemployable.
Some of these people may have felt as if they had been thrown onto the scrapheap. But none of these people were wastrels. Some had been employed, but had been laid off. Some had been in the Forces; some older ones had taken early retirement, and some had done little since leaving school. A few of the team even had degrees, and another was studying for one in his own time. I suspect that most went on to have useful careers, and some will have done really well for themselves.
The clearance of hundreds of mature and near-mature trees quickly presented us with a problem of where to put the stuff – until someone suggested burning it all in the chimney. We then had a visceral demonstration as to why such chimneys were erected, as the atmospheric draw created an inferno of 30ft high flames, which threatened to suck inside anyone who foolishly stood too close to the chimney flue! For the first time in decades, a pall of black smoke issued forth from the chimney top, and concerned local residents put a stop to our conflagration, although we had depleted most of our trees by then.
After this, it became clear that the sunken areas of the mill had been infilled with great depths of demolition debris in 1952, including the massive square slabs of local flagstone which had originally formed bleaching tanks. Most of this could never have been moved by hand, so for two weeks we engaged a 30 tonne hydraulic excavator and a 20 tonne dumper. The demolition of old Burrs Bridge, with its 2 tonne weight limit, required the construction of an ex-army ‘Bailey Bridge’ just downstream, and our heavy plant used this for access. Within no time at all, we were creating a veritable mountain of spoil on the site of the present car park. At the end of each day, to clean his tyres, the dumper driver charged upriver through deep water, throwing up a bow wave like a tug boat!
But there were limits as to what could be done by machinery, and what then followed was months of hard manual graft, by men and women using shovel and mattock, to clear masonry gulleys, pits and channels, to expose fabric which had been buried for up to a century or more.
The spoil mountain had grown ever larger, and there was no way it could be taken away from Burrs. The solution lay close at hand. To the west of the Feeder Canal was a vast dump of cinders, generated by the mill boilers, and between this and the canal embankment was a narrow but capacious little valley. A little later, an antiquated but powerful Ruston Bacyrus 22 crane creaked onto the site, equipped with a dragline bucket the size of a mini car.
And what then followed was utterly mesmerising to the viewer, as the expert operator performed a slow-motion balletic repetition by which he drew back the drag bucket, heaping it with spoil, and then released it to let gravity draw it away in a great arcing pendulum; and as he slewed the great machine sideways, the bucket unerringly flew across the canal, before releasing it’s great load into the little valley. And he did this every day for three weeks, and the mountain gradually disappeared.
I reckoned that by the end of the scheme, we had shifted somewhere around 5,000 tonnes of spoil across the canal. And perhaps 500 tonnes of this was dug out by hand. And then there was all of the tree-felling, dam building, and conservation work, with cement and concrete, and all of the drawing and recording work. To say nothing of the excavation of the midden at Burrs Cottages, and the big wheelpit at Higher Woodhill. And the many public tours and lectures, and the many visits by councillors and sponsors and local residents…
But it didn’t last. Within 18 months, MSC became Employment Training (ET), and it became unworkable. Our scheme at Burrs closed down then, but the remains of Burrs Mill were now exposed for all to see, and the grand design fostered by Bury MBC was now flying along at breakneck speed, as other grant-aid and contractors came on board.
For restoration schemes, like Burrs Country Park, MSC projects were far more than just cheap labour. They were a lifeline to much-needed government funding. But there was something else as well, less obviously tangible, which ran deep into human perceptions. The East Lancashire Railway had a large MSC team out on the tracks in all weathers, and the Ellenroad Engine House had one too, performing tasks nothing short of miraculous. None of these success stories could have been progressed without their MSC teams. They provided the muscle and the impetus around which everything else was constructed. So that when Local Authority planning officers brought potential grant-givers to these reclamation schemes, no amount of clever talk or piles of paperwork could inspire beneficiaries more than the sight of 30-odd young people shifting tonnes of muck and masonry with their bare hands.
And several decades on, the spearheading role of the MSC team in the creation of the Burrs Country Park is all but forgotten. But I look back over all of the years which have since expired, and I remember you. And I marvel at all that we achieved together, and I thank you for all your hard graft and cheerfulness, despite your own personal adversity. And for initiating what was to become a marvellous venture.